Avoiding first-degree burns

So much time, effort and money goes into our undergraduate degrees; ultimately, how far do your credentials get you?

Although a four-year undergraduate degree can really break the bank, many say the financial sacrifice is worth it.
Although a four-year undergraduate degree can really break the bank, many say the financial sacrifice is worth it.

There are now 46 per cent more applicants to Ontario universities in the last ten years, according to the Council of Ontario Universities. Considering the financial burden and the amount of competition in today’s job market, it’s important to know how much a university degree is actually worth.

According to the University Registrar, undergraduate students registered in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences at Queen’s pay tuition fees of a little more than $6,000 each year. Add to that cost of living, school supplies and pricey textbooks and the total expenses for just one year of university in Ontario is almost $12,000.

A four-year program costs roughly $50,000. With the same amount of money, one could purchase a decent sports car, travel to all the major cities in Europe or even make a down payment on a house.

According to the Ontario Student Assistance Program (OSAP), which helps students finance their education, students can end up with close to $20,000 in debt by the time they graduate.

The OSAP website advertises a six month post graduation grace period in which loans do not acquire interest. Loan payment plans give students this time to find a job offering them enough to counter their piling debt.

Less advertised on OSAP is the fact that it takes on average nine and a half years to repay a student loan. Once repayment begins, interest starts to accrue.

This is when some students find themselves paying $100 or more each month just to satisfy interest payments. The longer it takes them to repay the loan, the higher their interest becomes.

Paalini Anadachee, ArtSci ’13, said she is aware of the costs of university but has a clear stance on the issue.

“College is worth the financial burden if you want a career afterwards. It’s worth it only if you know what you want to achieve and where you are headed,” she said. “If you are still unsure about what to major in or what field of work you want to go into, university is a waste of money.”

According to Pay Scale’s 2010-11 College Salary Report, on average, those graduating with a degree in the social sciences earn approximately $38,100 per year as a starting median salary.

Students in the commerce program, on the other hand, are expected to earn $41,100 at the start of their career. However, their tuition at Queen’s is also higher than other faculties, at approximately $13,000 a year, according to the University Registrar.

While their higher tuition may cover services such as their own career counselling services and international study opportunities, it may not always give them a monopoly on jobs. Isabelle Morin does recruitment for accounting firm KPMG Enterprise.

Morin told the Journal in an email that the firm is flexible on the type of degree a student could have to become a Chartered Accountant (CA).

“While the majority of candidates elect to earn a degree in business or finance, this is by no means a requirement. If you have earned a Bachelor’s degree in sciences, arts, engineering and law, we also [encourage you] to consider a career as a CA,” she said, adding that there is still a required number of university courses related to accounting to be a CA.

Besides a strong academic background, it is also important for applicants to have a sound balance of extracurricular activities and leadership and communication skills, she said.

Christa Wallbridge, project manager of business development at Kingston Economic Development Cooporation (KEDCO), has seen firsthand that your degree might not lead directly to a career path.

She said her current job entails business analysis, project management and economics, but she graduated from the University of Toronto with a degree in anthropology.

“When I first started school I was more interested in archaeology,” Wallbridge said, adding that she thought she might go on to do graduate work in archaeology.

“As the year progressed ... I got tired of being in school and life happened,” she said.

After graduation, she started up her own photography business and became an independent seller for a company called Discovery Toys.

“Both of those were managing finances of my own,” she said, adding that she later became an executive assistant for the Vancouver Island Health Authority, a job which consisted of many business analysis tasks.

After moving to Kingston, she was hired at her current position at KEDCO.

Wallbridge said she is not the only person with a degree unrelated to her line of work.

“I know lots of people that have english degrees and geology degrees and they end up doing things completely not what their schooling was for. University gives you skills,” she said.

“I can write papers, and I have analytical skills from doing anthropology. The skills that you get in school are still applicable in real life and in business.”

Paul Bowman, manager of career education and counselling at Career Services, agreed with Wallbridge that transferable skills are more important than specific facts when it comes to finding a job and many popular postgraduate career paths, like law or medicine, have much more flexibility with degree requirements than one might think.

“People get into law from any undergraduate program,” Bowman said, adding that he’s known of people getting into law school with degrees in nursing, engineering, commerce and biology.

“It’s really the overall strength of your application,” he said, which consists of a strong transcript and LSAT scores.

“That’s why we recommend to students that they study what they’re genuinely interested in and where they think they’re going to perform the strongest.”

Medical schools are similar in terms of requirements, he said. McMaster University, for example, has no prerequisites to get in.

“A student I worked with was in drama and got into medicine at McMaster,” he said. “The advantage of taking a science-oriented undergraduate degree ... is the MCAT; a background in science can help you.”

Bowman said it can be hard to plan your degree around life goals. For example, there isn’t one degree that will help you get richer than any other.

“It has more to do with your work ethic, your willingness to take risks, your creativity and those other personal and interpersonal qualities,” he said, adding that he knows of many Queen’s grads who have benefitted more in the job market from their non-academic experiences.

“Careers aren’t always planned,’ he said. “Sometimes it’s a combination of planning, engagement and chance. Take advantage of the chances and opportunities that come your way.”

Cynthia Levine-Rasky, an associate professor in the department of sociology, said she never planned to be a professor, but that it’s not uncommon for students to end up in professions vastly different than their area of study.

“Most of us end up in jobs we didn’t have training for,” she said. “With changing economic environments, shifting societal values and anomalous stories about friends of friends who made a living with just a high school diploma, it can be difficult to decide which path is best suited to one’s needs.

“You can’t compromise what you love so young people should do what they want. Family, friends, culture—everything has an emphasis on the choices we make,” she said.

“Ultimately, you can’t expect a 19 year old to know what they are going to do with the rest of their life. Such a process is difficult for young people to wade through.”

Even so, more and more students are heading into the realm of post-secondary education.

“When the labour market is shrinking, it’s logical for students to say ‘what can we do to get a job?’ They reason that they have to go to school and get credentials to become more qualified,” Levine-Rasky said. “[But] further education will not [necessarily] correct the structural problem of the shrinking labour market, despite students’ impressions otherwise.”

— With files from Kelly Loeper

What can you do with your degree?

  • Art history: Advertising, animation, art criticism, book design, gallery work.
  • Biology: Agricultural research, dentistry, epidemiology, food industry, forensic psychology.
  • Commerce: Accounting, advertising, insurance, law, real estate.
  • Computing: Robotics, graphic art, family medicine, biomedical technology, accounting.
  • Drama: Theatre performance, radio and TV broadcasting, film industry, marketing, tourism.
  • Economics: Banking, journalism, law, urban and regional planning, business administration and management.
  • English literature: Marketing, law, magazine/newspaper industry, translation, radio and TV broadcasting.
  • Geological engineering: Architecture, meteorology, petroleum and gas industry, surveying and cartography, environmental conservation.
  • Psychology: Child/youth care, addictions/family/disability/career counselling, forensics, image consulting, public relations.
  • Physical therapy: Chiropractics, family/sports/geriatric/orthopaedic medicine, fitness consulting, community health.
  • — careers.queensu.ca

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